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The Hogansburg Triangle is in pink on this map.
The Hogansburg Triangle is in pink on this map.

Judge sustains part of Mohawk land claim

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Native tribes' claims to ancestral lands in New York haven't fared so well recently. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court essentially dismissed the Oneida Nation's land claim, saying too much time had passed since the 18th century treaties the claims are based on. Other courts have followed that ruling with other tribes' land claims.

So this week, when a judge recommended throwing out 85% of the Mohawk land claim in St. Lawrence and Franklin counties, the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe focused on the 15% that has a chance to survive. David Sommerstein reports.

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That 15% is 2,000 acres of land in the Franklin County town of Bombay.  It’s called the Bombay Triangle, or the Hogansburg Triangle.  Mohawks call it the Akwesasne Triangle.

Whatever it’s called, Magistrate Judge Therese Wiley Dancks observed that it’s bordered by the Akwesasne Mohawk reservation on two sides.  “It looks like a missing Reservation puzzle piece”, she wrote in her ruling released last Friday.  She also noted the Triangle has a greater Mohawk population than other places off the reservation. 

That’s why Judge Dancks recommended dismissing all of the Mohawks’ 12,000 acre land claim except the Hogansburg Triangle.  She wrote those other parts have a “long standing non-Indian character”.  Those include the villages of Massena and Fort Covington, the Grasse River Meadows, and three islands on the St. Lawrence River, including the one where the massive Moses-Saunders hydropower dam is located.

The ruling is good news to towns like Massena and Fort Covington.  And though it may seem strange, St. Regis Mohawk Tribal chief Ron LaFrance says the tribe considers it good news, too.

The Indian land claims of New York State have all been dealt death blows, and this kind of…there’s a light at the end of the tunnel for us.

In other words, just the fact that a judge would support any part of the land claim is a positive to the tribe.  LaFrance says that doesn’t mean the Mohawks will stop fighting for the rest.  He says the Mohawks are different than other tribes and should be recognized as such in court.

We have never left this area.  We have always been here, and our presence in this region is a very strong presence, unlike the Cayugas that didn’t have a land base, or the Oneidas who had a very small land base. Just in terms of justice, is there really justice when…  I thought treaties were the supreme law of the land. We’re finding out that that’s not necessarily true.

Local lawmakers in both St. Lawrence and Franklin counties declined to comment on the specifics of Judge Dancks’ ruling until they could consult with their lawyers.

Gordy Crossman chairs the Franklin County legislature.  He says the decades old land claims have meant a legal limbo for everyone in the claim area, but especially in the Triangle.

Residents in that area are always wondering what’s going to happen.  Is it acceptable to the Native Americans?  Is it acceptable to the other residents?

Judge Dancks’ recommendations are just that – recommendations to the next court to take up the case.  That’s U.S. District Judge Neal McCurn of the Northern District of New York.  Both sides in the case have two weeks to file objections.  One thing’s clear – the Mohawk land claim is nowhere near a final resolution.

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